The chronic fear of reading’s demise

As if you needed more on reading and its benefits (as I discuss here, here, here, and here), see People of the Screen from the New Atlantis. It’s a long article worth reading in full, but these paragraphs stand out:

Whether one agrees with the NEA or with Bloom, no one can deny that our new communications technologies have irrevocably altered the reading culture. In 2005, Northwestern University sociologists Wendy Griswold, Terry McDonnell, and Nathan Wright identified the emergence of a new “reading class,” one “restricted in size but disproportionate in influence.” Their research , conducted largely in the 1990s, found that the heaviest readers were also the heaviest users of the Internet, a result that many enthusiasts of digital literacy took as evidence that print literacy and screen literacy might be complementary capacities instead of just competitors for precious time.


Just as Griswold and her colleagues suggested the impending rise of a “reading class,” British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield argues that the time we spend in front of the computer and television is creating a two-class society: people of the screen and people of the book. The former, according to new neurological research, are exposing themselves to excessive amounts of dopamine, the natural chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain. This in turn can lead to the suppression of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls functions such as measuring risk and considering the consequences of one’s actions.

Writing in The New Republic in 2005, Johns Hopkins University historian David A. Bell described the often arduous process of reading a scholarly book in digital rather than print format: “I scroll back and forth, search for keywords, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book, and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.”


But the Northwestern sociologists also predicted, “as Internet use moves into less-advantaged segments of the population, the picture may change. For these groups, it may be that leisure time is more limited, the reading habit is less firmly established, and the competition between going online and reading is more intense.” This prediction is now coming to pass: A University of Michigan study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2008 reported that the Web is now the primary source of reading material for low-income high school students in Detroit. And yet, the study notes, “only reading novels on a regular basis outside of school is shown to have a positive relationship to academic achievement.”

I realize the irony of sharing this on the Internet, where it’s probably being read on the same screens criticized by the study, and perhaps demonstrating the allegedly rising divide between screen readers and book readers.

Compare the section above to my post on Reading: Wheaties, marijuana, or boring? You decide, which discusses the innumerable articles on reading’s decline (or maybe not). Alan Jacobs has an excellent post on Frum and Literature in which he observes that reading, especially real books, has probably always been a minority taste and probably always will be. Orwell opens his 1936 essay “In Defence of the Novel” by saying “It hardly needs pointing out that at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low, so low that the words ‘I never read novels,’ which even a dozen years ago were generally uttered with a hint of apology are now always uttered in a tone of conscious pride.” The whole piece is available in the collection Essays.

Finally, consider From Books, New President Found Voice in the New York Times, which I’m sure every book/lit blogger has already linked to by now:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame. He recalls that he read James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and W. E. B. Du Bois when he was an adolescent in an effort to come to terms with his racial identity and that later, during an ascetic phase in college, he immersed himself in the works of thinkers like Nietzsche and St. Augustine in a spiritual-intellectual search to figure out what he truly believed.

Without his experience in books, Obama probably wouldn’t be where he is, and millions of others must silently share the same condition of achieving what they have thanks largely due to their learning. But they seldom get a voice in the pronouncements about reading’s decline, and those articles seldom acknowledge that, while society might lose a great deal from the allegedly decreasing literacy of its members, those members will lose vastly more on an individual level, and few will even realize what they’ve lost.

(Hat tip Andrew Sullivan.)

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